The new “Karate Kid” with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith has supposedly learned from the past, setting out to poke holes in some stereotypes about Asians.
That’s good news for any Asian middle-schooler tormented by the “Wax on, wax off” catchphrase of the original.
The film parodies the idea that all Asians are foreigners (“Dude, I’m from Detroit”) and can grab flies out of the air with chopsticks.
It also preserves some of the positives from the original. The heart-warming, cross-racial coalition is still there, as is the theme of reciprocal redemption, to say nothing of the obligatory training montage.
But what’s also still there is a tired image that always surrounds Hollywood fantasies about Asians: We respect our elders; we obey authority; we are preternaturally focused and preternaturally cruel; we have bad hair.
In recasting the film’s protagonist as black, “The Karate Kid” echoes last year’s much-hyped films, “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” in its implicit message that black people can’t save themselves, but need to be saved by others.
And in this case, who better than us Chinese?
That’s right, we’re the ones with self-discipline. And our snake-fighting skills? Off the hook.
Or so, once again, Hollywood would have us believe.
The original “Karate Kid” gets credit for linking sensei Miyagi’s social withdrawal and curmudgeonly attitude to racial trauma: the death of his family enmeshed within the paradox of Japanese-American internment (the original racial profiling) while members of the much-decorated 442nd served their country during World War II.
The shift of location to China gives us nice shots of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but waters down Mr. Han’s backstory, replacing the original’s hidden American trauma with relatively generic survivor’s guilt.
More insidious is the veiled economic message of the new “Karate Kid”: Job losses in Detroit are somehow due to labor outsourcing to China, a nation of dress-alike, go-along bullies. Next thing you know, we’ll all have to move to China.
If Jackie Chan is miscast as a melancholic Mr. Han here, at least he’s not performing the gross racial stereotype. As the New York Times’ Lawrence Downes noted in an obituary about the mixed legacy of character actor Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi in the original “Karate Kid”: “But still, it bother me Miyagi-san so wise, but find it hard use articles, pronouns when talk.”
Dude, that how we talk. You no like, you go live Arizona.
The Asian version of a minstrel show would look like this: lots of butt kicking, Zen cool and total concentration. I guess everybody loves kung fu.
Well, got to go tap into some ancient wisdom.
And standing on my fingers is really starting to hurt.
Leslie Bow, professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is the author of the recently published “Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South” (NYU Press). She can be reached at email@example.com.